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The Cost of Punishing Overachievers

Posted on October 28, 2016
Jakob HuntWritten by Jakob Hunt | Email author

Businessman Midair in a Business MeetingWe all accept that good leadership requires a balanced, equilateral approach to our team members. Of course, we should never have a favorite employee; HOWEVER as human leaders, every one of us has had that one superstar team member that we rely on greatly and yes, even like a whole lot. It is not hard to prefer “Sally” as the employee who happily volunteers to fill in and rarely demonstrates even the slightest bit of stress. So while we would never have favorites, it is difficult to not favor Sally when her counterpart, Jimmy, is hiding the fact that Facebook is now his home page on the company laptop and that his longer and longer breaks are due to him hunting Pokemon in the back parking lot.

Then it happens. You see the letter clutched in Sally’s hand and her face as she approaches and asks, “can I have a moment to speak privately?”; you respond calmly with “absolutely” when inside of your head you are yelling, “NOOooooo, NO, please don’t do it!”…BUT SHE DID… and as you walk past Jimmy quickly closing his laptop to pretend he was not just watching a cat video, you think, “I am never, ever going to find another Sally”.

The reality is that overachieving and even higher performing employees are exactly the ones who are least likely to admit they are unhappy in some way or looking for new opportunities.

toxic employeeWhy did they start looking for other opportunities in the first place? Of course we want our people to succeed and to leverage their experience into better growth opportunities in their lives, but the question remains, could we have created THIS job as a better growth opportunity for them to grow and succeed?

Recently I read a tongue in cheek post on social media that stated, “They should punish kids who do well in school with more homework to prepare them for what happens to people who are efficient at their jobs.” What a sad truth that this is often the plight of the overachiever, to be overworked and under developed; they become a “catch all” for everyone, including their supervisors. We need someone to fill in on Saturday, let’s ask Sally as she will gladly do it! When we have a very important project that is due in two weeks, let’s put Sally on it now so she can start knocking it out.  Of course, Sally is engaged with her career and company, how could she not be with all of the projects she’s working on, right?

When you think about your “Sally” and all of the holes her departure would leave or the next time you hear someone within your organization say “I wear a lot of hats”, STOP, EVALUATE and take ACTION as necessary.

Here’s what we know about overachievers:

  • Overachievers have a deep need to achieve and are results driven. Having multiple roles often means while each is getting done, they are not at the level that is acceptable to them or the results that could be achieved long term by developing another team member. This often leads to professional frustration for the overachiever and the other team members who are not getting the opportunity to perform.
  • The words “I can’t” or “no” do not exist in the over achiever’s vocabulary. Overachievers crave approval and will continue to take on more and more roles, projects, and hats despite the ten gallon one already on their head.
  • Growth of the team is stunted; by consistently using Sally for projects whether they relate to her primary role or not, we have contributed to stunting her growth and development into the primary area that encompasses her true talent and passion as well as stopped developing Jimmy who uses Sally’s willingness to work as a crutch and all other team members in between.

Within leadership roles, recognition of a potential issue, dictates the responsibility to take action. Take the time to identify the Sally(s) within your organization and to think of the ways to potentially streamline their role. It is true that someone else may take longer and in the beginning may not do it as well, but as the leader, it is our job to demonstrate that sometimes good IS good enough especially when it is a result of developing someone with a long term goal in sight. This is how we truly recognize all of our team, by helping them to grow and develop and stay engaged here. It is simply too late, once you walk into your office and see the envelope she left laying on your desk; it is the one right next to Jimmy’s fourth time off request form submitted this month.

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